Final NTSB report on deadly Amtrak crash shows need for oversight panel, O’Ban says

Federal investigators rip Sound Transit management of new rail bypass

Aerial view of accident scene Dec. 18, 2017 after Amtrak Cascades hurtled onto I-5 during inaugural run on new Point Defiance Bypass. (Washington State Patrol photo)

OLYMPIA – A final report from the National Transportation Safety Board on the deadly 2017 Amtrak derailment at DuPont faults Sound Transit management of rail lines, and underscores the need for a review panel to ensure recommendations are implemented before service resumes, says Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-West Pierce County. The derailment occurred in O’Ban’s legislative district.

Three people were killed and 70 injured Dec. 18, 2017 when the Amtrak Cascades, making an inaugural run on a new stretch of Sound Transit trackage paralleling I-5 through DuPont, failed to slow for a sharp curve where the tracks rejoined the BNSF mainline. The locomotive flew off the rails and hurtled over an embankment onto the freeway below.

Although the NTSB has cited operator error as the immediate cause of the crash, it has said the engineer was “set up” because Sound Transit failed to mitigate for the danger of the sharp curve, Amtrak failed to provide sufficient training, and the Washington Department of Transportation failed to ensure the route was safe before greenlighting passenger-train traffic. The final report, published Monday, sharply criticizes Sound Transit for failing to coordinate with Amtrak in establishing a timetable with speed restrictions that would have allowed trains to negotiate the curve. The report said Sound Transit displayed a “fundamental lack of understanding of a basic principle of railroading.” The report observes that the entity responsible for the tracks also is responsible for timetables and other special instructions to allow trains to operate safely.

“This final report demonstrates the need for public oversight of projects like these,” O’Ban said. “Someone needs to make sure all the pieces fit together. In this case, Sound Transit clearly failed to take responsibility. Before service resumes on the Point Defiance Bypass, we need to be able to assure the public that all safety recommendations have been implemented.”

O’Ban plans to introduce legislation next year to create a bipartisan State Transportation Oversight Panel (STOP), to oversee future rail projects and ensure NTSB recommendations are followed. The panel would be comprised of chairs and ranking members of the Senate and House transportation committees, with a non-voting chair who does not hold office.

The structure is designed to ensure rail projects are given fair critical review. Three out of four votes would be required, ensuring bipartisan consensus, similar to the state Redistricting Commission.

Under O’Ban’s plan, all parties involved in the DuPont crash would be required to submit reports to the panel detailing how they have implemented NTSB recommendations. Since the accident, passenger trains have continued to use the old Point Defiance route through Tacoma. O’Ban is asking Sound Transit and Washington State Department of Transportation, operator of the Amtrak Cascades, to wait until it receives a green light from the panel before they resume service on the new trackage. Because legislation cannot be passed until the 2020 session, O’Ban has also called on the proposed members of the new panel to convene immediately and provide oversight on urgent safety matters such as the NTSB recommendations. 

The panel also would also review future projects. 

In its final published report on the accident, NTSB calls for Sound Transit to conduct a thorough review of operating procedures throughout its rail system, not just on the new bypass. The report says the case “further highlights the lack of coordination between organizations and the lack of clear responsibilities between organizations during the safety certification phase of the Lakewood Subdivision upgrade project. The NTSB concludes that Sound Transit did not update the timetable on its Lakewood Subdivision to identify the curve at MP 19.8 as a crew focus zone, which would have helped to mitigate the overspeed derailment risk. Therefore, the NTSB recommends that Sound Transit immediately conduct a review of all operating documents and ensure that safety mitigations are applied with uniformity through the entirety of its territory.”